1878 Morgan Dollar (8 Tail Feathers)
The 1878 Morgan Dollar (8 Tail Feathers) is especially attractive to collectors for two reasons, 1) it is the first year the Morgan Dollar was issued and 2) the strikes varied as they perfected the design, now called the "tail feather" varieties.
When the Morgan Dollar was first designed and struck, the eagle on the reverse displayed 8 tail feathers ---apparently a number not found in nature. Eagles only have 7 tail feathers. Once the error was detected, a new pattern was created to over-punch the existing coins. This created a second 1878 variety, the 1878 Morgan Dollar (7/8 Tail Feathers) because the new, 7 feather stamping can be detected on previously-existing 8 feather coins. Once all existing coins were corrected at the mint, the third and final 1878 coin was released, the 1878 Morgan Dollar (7 Tail Feathers).
Collecting 1878 Morgan Dollars is great fun because you can seek out these varieties, hold them in your hand, and visualize the mint's early minting of the extremely popular Morgan Dollar.
The three varieties of the 1878 Philadelphia Mint Morgan silver dollars:
Some collectors maintain the 1878 eight tail feather variety is not an "error." The dollars were simply made then changed to seven tail feathers as part of a larger design change. Meaning, George T. Morgan, nor anyone for that matter, cared how many feathers were displayed on the eagle. It was simply an iteration that made it's way through the mint.
Whether you believe the number of tail feathers was changed for accuracy or as part of a larger design change is up to you but this DOES illustrate how minute details capture collector's attention! Sleep has been lost among collectors who know there is an 1878 Morgan variety missing from their collection.
1878 Morgan dollars are discussed and examined at length in the 3rd edition of the Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of Morgan & Peace Dollars, by Leroy C. Van Allen and A. George Mallis. This book devotes it's attention to the Morgan Dollar, the 1878 eight tail feather variety and others. This article and others in the Morgan Dollar series is a great on-line resource for sharing these details with other collectors. The 8 Tail Feather variety is often seen by collectors as the starting point in their Morgan Dollar collection.
A quantity of Morgan dollars with eight tail feathers were released in 1878 and the following years. It's estimated 700,000-750,000 were minted for circulation and 500 proofs created.
They were were not rare at the time but times have changed. In Uncirculated condition, this variety appears most often in MS-63, with MS-62 and MS-64 nearly tied for second place (the finest examples graded by the Professional Coin Grading Service are a single MS-67, 10 MS-65 Prooflikes, and 1 MS-66 Deep Mirror Prooflikes). Not easy to acquire.
Mintages may be incorrect because this variety shows up in the market more frequently than any other of the year, even though other varieties (like the 1878 7 Tail Feathers, Reverse of 1878) have estimated mintages as high as seven times as much. It is encouraged you discuss these details with other collectors, dealers, and professional graders ---also pay close attention to design details yourself before making a purchase.
Historical Background in 1878
The economic depression, which began in 1873, was still being felt. Over 10,000 business had failed since the slowdown.
In California, the poet and American West outlaw calling himself "Black Bart" makes his last clean getaway when he steals a safe box from a Wells Fargo stagecoach. The empty box is found later with a taunting poem inside.
On February 19, 1878, Edison was issued the first patent (U.S. patent #200,521) for the phonograph. While other inventors had produced devices that could record sounds, Edison's phonograph was the first to be able to reproduce the recorded sound.